At the height of his fame in 2016, Issa Tweimeh had, by any modern-day adolescent’s accounting, a dream life. He could hardly walk outside his house without being accosted by fans who knew him as “Twaimz,” the pseudonym under which he posted funny videos and kitschy songs to the internet. Over the two years that he’d been creating videos, Tweimeh had racked up more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube and millions more on Instagram and Vine. They would follow him to the mall or show up on his doorstep; they’d call his parents or bombard him with messages online. He achieved so much success with his YouTube channel by age 19 that in 2015 he was able to quit school and pursue his passion full time. He traveled the country, hosting tours and meet and greets with hoards of adoring fans.
And then he gave it all up and disappeared from the internet.
Why would Tweimeh abandon his social-media dream? Why devote your life to building YouTube celebrity, only to give it up? The important thing to understand about Tweimeh is that he’s part of a second generation of YouTube stars, one that found fame differently than the first — and one that’s finding that the price of their social-media-celebrity dream is often unbearably high.
The “first generation” of YouTubers — your Tyler Oakleys, Connor Frantas, Joey Graceffas, and Shane Dawsons, all of whom most teenagers have heard of even if you haven’t — began making videos in the early days of YouTube, between 2006 and 2009. Their audiences grew enormous alongside the platform. But none of those stars had set out to become famous or make a career out of making YouTube videos. When Tyler Oakley, one of the most widely known YouTube stars today, uploaded his first video in 2007, there was no such thing as a “social-media influencer,” and shooting and editing videos was a lengthy process that required an expensive camera and computer setup. The first VidCon, the largest annual YouTuber convention that’s become associated with the world of internet vloggers, didn’t even take place until 2010.
But as YouTube grew, so, too, did the following of these vloggers. At this point, a decade’s worth of middle- and high-school students have grown up watching videos by Oakley and his peers, idolizing them not just as celebrities, but as career models. These young adults, for whom “YouTube star” is a recognizable dream job — rather than the nonsense pipe dream it would have been in 2007 — are forming a second generation of YouTube stars.
Growing up in a small town in California’s Bay Area, Tweimeh was bullied and teased at school for his sexuality (Tweimeh is gay), and like many kids, he took refuge online, watching hundreds of hours of YouTube videos alone in his room. He dreamed of meeting famous YouTubers in real life, particularly Shane Dawson. But until 2013, when Tweimeh attended his first VidCon, becoming a YouTuber himself had seemed unimaginable. “I never even thought about becoming a YouTuber,” he said. “I just watched them all day.”
At his first VidCon, Tweimeh waited hours in line for a meet and greet with Dawson. When they finally came face-to-face, Tweimeh was blown away by his kindness. “Here’s a guy I knew everything about and had watched for years, and he gave me a hug,” Tweimeh said. “I’ve never felt that type of happiness in my whole life.” On the drive back home, Tweimeh got on the phone with his friends and told them he was going to become a YouTuber.
Tweimeh’s YouTuber aspirations weren’t unique: According to a recent study by marketing firm First Choice, over 75 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 aspire to become a YouTuber or vlogger when they grow up. Kids can now even enroll in summer camps that are specifically aimed at teaching them how to become internet-famous.
But most of these teens are in for a rude awakening. YouTube has grown into a behemoth over the last decade: The platform currently claims 1.5 billion monthly active users and is growing. And unlike the first wave of stars, who stumbled onto success and grew with the platform, teens taking to YouTube right now, specifically trying to make a name for themselves, are fighting an uphill battle. Without Hollywood ties or personal connections with established YouTube names, most kids’ videos will go unnoticed.
But there is a side door in: Get big on another growing video platform, like Vine, Musical.ly, or Instagram, then migrate your fan base over to YouTube. Making that migration is key to anyone who hopes to sustain a living as a full-time internet star. While some lucky few can get by on money made from doing Instagram sponsored posts, they’re not able to generate anywhere near the amount of revenue a successful YouTuber can make by running ads on their videos.
But getting big on a smaller platform first is how nearly everyone in YouTube’s second generation of stars built their audience. Jake Paul, King Bach, Gabbie Hanna, and Amanda Cerny all blew up on Vine first, then transported their followings over to YouTube. There are many advantages to this method — the main one being that it’s much easier to build an audience on a smaller, growing platform than to try to make a name for yourself in a crowded market like YouTube.
When social-media platforms and apps are just starting out, users are desperate for interesting people to follow. On a young platform, there are fewer users making viral content, and this lack of competition helps wannabe stars reach a growing user base. Social platforms will also often highlight interesting creators in order to boost engagement and keep people on the platform. Many Vine stars became big because they were regularly featured in Vine’s “comedy” channel, which helped them get more followers, which spread their content further, which helped them make it to the top of the comedy channel, and so on.
This was the route Tweimeh decided to take. In 2013, Vine was still a young and growing app, and Tweimeh’s short videos there — comedy skits, lip-sync videos, and scenes from his daily life — became popular quickly. Within a year, Tweimeh had amassed 3 million followers and enough attention on Vine that he decided to take on YouTube. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can go from six seconds to six minutes,’” he said. He didn’t alter his humor much. He still posted funny skits and parody songs, and he talked very openly about being gay. He also took part in popular challenges and games that are commonplace on YouTube. By late 2015, he had become a bona fide YouTube star with over 1 million followers and millions more views.
At first, he was riding high. Tweimeh said he felt like he had achieved everything he ever wanted in life. In 2016, he staged a sold-out 22-city holiday tour that grossed him six figures in revenue. On the tour, he performed his hit parody song about llamas, told stories about his childhood and accidentally coming out to his mother while drunk, and hosted meet and greets with thousands of adoring fans where he took photos and distributed hugs. Around this time, his Twaimz YouTube videos had pulled in over 53 million views and his audience was growing. Tweimeh was making “well over six figures” as a professional YouTuber.
But as his fame grew, the pressure to live up to his online persona became crushing. Tweimeh began feeling trapped. He felt like he was losing himself and didn’t know how to stop. “The more videos I made, the more I was becoming like a character of myself,” he said. “Every time I turned on the camera, it was like I was putting on this façade, and I wasn’t really getting anything real out of it. It got to a point where it was too tiring for me to keep up the act. I was losing my confidence and becoming insecure all over again.”
Tweimeh isn’t a shy person, but he’s thoughtful and introspective in a way that doesn’t come across in his earlier Twaimz videos. Performing in his videos as Twaimz, Tweimeh sang about his crushes, dressed up in drag, and danced around without a care. “Twaimz, I would say, is the craziest, over-the-top, extra — just so vulgar, but hilarious and sweet at the same time — persona; that is who Twaimz is,” Tweimeh said.
Twaimz was crazy, happy, energetic, and wild. Tweimeh says he’s like that sometimes, but it’s just one slice of his complicated personality. He’s struggled with depression and being bullied, and sometimes life wasn’t as peachy as his Twaimz act made it seem. He liked that Twaimz was so positive and could bring joy to his followers, but maintaining that one-dimensional personality all the time was overwhelming.
So, without warning his followers, he quit YouTube.
Overnight, Tweimeh’s channel went dark; his Instagram and Twitter accounts were temporarily deactivated, and his avatars on the accounts that remained were switched to solid black. His fans were shocked. Rumors of his death swirled. Teens desperately tried tweeting at him, sending him messages, calling his house to ask what happened and if he was okay. Fans posted messages on his final YouTube video every day for months, begging him to come back.
For a year, Tweimeh slept, reconnected with offline friends, hung out with his family, and ate a lot of sushi. He didn’t upload a single video or explain his decision to quit the internet. He’d just desperately needed time off.
But he couldn’t stay away forever. Last month, after over a year offline, he returned to YouTube. Tweimeh announced his comeback on August 30 by uploading his first video in over a year, titled “The Return of Twaimz.” It’s a horror-movie parody where his old self, “Twaimz,” haunts his “real” self, “Issa,” and possesses him. “I know you hated Twaimz, but Twaimz isn’t just a part of your life, it’s a part of everybody’s life,” his YouTube alter ego says. At the end of the video, his father walks into their house and declares, “Twaimz is back.”
But Tweimeh says that, technically, Twaimz isn’t back. For one, he’s changed his YouTube name to “Issa Twaimz,” appending his real-life first name to his YouTube moniker to reflect his new, more authentic persona. Tweimeh says that his channel will still feature wacky parody songs and pranks, but he hopes to show more of his “real” personality as well. “I do have this personal side (Issa), but I also have this crazy side (Twaimz), and together they make who I am,” he said.
He’s not the first online influencer to take a break from the internet, or the first celebrity to try to reinvent himself. Instagram star Essena O’Neill famously quit the internet last year, claiming that social media “isn’t real life.” Kevan Wu, known on YouTube as KevJumba, also quit for a while after a traumatic car crash left him hospitalized and struggling with depression. And YouTuber Sam Pepper quit the internet in 2016 after backlash to his controversial pranks. But Tweimeh’s fan-to-riches story can be read as a cautionary tale to many would-be third-generation YouTube stars.
When asked if he would recommend his career choice to young teens today, Tweimeh paused. “The social-media world today is much more driven by negativity,” he said. “I see the type of content that gets surfaced on YouTube now. It’s not the same as it was. It’s a lot more drama-related, a lot more backed by negative opinions or controversy.”
YouTubers in 2017 are under intense pressure to create soap-opera-level drama to maintain the interest of their fans. Whether that means starting fake beefs and rap-battling with family members, like Jake and Logan Paul; waging public wars with your BFFs, like Lele Pons; or starting fights with other YouTube stars, like KSI, YouTubers have begun to realize what many Real Housewives have known for a decade: There’s nothing people on the internet love more than drama.
DramaAlert, a YouTube channel that is solely dedicated to chronicling drama in the YouTube community has doubled in size over the last year to nearly 3 million subscribers by posting videos like “Jake Paul’s Fake Girlfriend BUSTED,” “KSI vs NetNobody (Diss Track WAR!),” and “Casey Neistat Sells Out Over PewDiePie!”
Tweimeh hopes to become a new type of influencer, one who spreads positivity rather than drama. “When I was like, ‘What’s the video I want to come back with? What’s something that people need?’” he said. “I was like, ‘positivity.’ Everybody needs that right now in the world we live in. I need more positivity; people who watch me need more positivity; we all need more positivity.” Unlike other YouTube stars in his cohort, he has not decamped to L.A. Instead, he lives at home with his parents in a modest suburban house in the Bay Area. He still keeps in close touch with his three best friends from growing up. His day-to-day life, aside from the hours he spends editing videos in his room, is not unlike many other 21-year-olds living at home struggling to figure out who they are.
Whether this newer, chiller, more authentic Twaimz will be able to compete in today’s YouTube climate is still unknown. But so far, his comeback content has performed well, and Tweimeh’s channel recently topped 3 million subscribers. Tweimeh is also more aware of the example he’s setting for younger fans and feels a duty to encourage them to find their own voice — and remain true to themselves.
“I think the main thing people are scared to do is turn on the camera,” he said. “The best advice I would give to anybody wanting to do this is, listen to your own voice. And whatever comes to your mind, film it, because no matter what it is, it’s content.”